Making Sense of Ukraine’s Local Elections

04 Nov 2015

(PONARS Eurasia Comment) The recent October 25 local elections concludes the series of post-Euromaidan elections that included presidential elections in May 2014 and parliamentary elections in October 2014.

The elections were characterized by relatively low voter turnout of just under 50 percent. While local elections rarely garner high turnouts, one might have expected a higher participation rate considering the country’s challenges. Some analysts have asked if the low turnout could have been a sign, whether of disappointment with the way things are going (so not voting was a sort of passive protest) or as an acknowledgement that those in power are on the right course (so people didn’t bother to vote).

The results suggest mostly the former. Indeed, the local elections appeared mainly to serve as a “referendum” on the current party of power. Despite being “local,” the elections generally referenced nationwide themes: the overall economic situation, Russian aggression, corruption, reform, and so on. Only rarely did the slogans and statements of candidates have something to do with specific local needs.

The political forces representing the government did not do very well. Prime Minister Arseniy Yatseniuk’s ratings were so low that he chose not to have his own political party participate. The president’s Poroshenko Bloc-Solidarity took part but took a bit of a beating.

Some of this could be expected: in the eyes of the voters, who else except the government is to blame? Citizens have been patient with Poroshenko and his party for some time, but their patience has dwindled. Society has been disappointed with the inadequate pace of reform and the fight against corruption. This somewhat recalls the attitude of society in the post-Orange Revolution period.

There has also been a matter of poor public relations. The government does not properly communicate with the public. Voters are simply unaware of certain achievements and steps in the right direction. One can read about them in expert analyses, but the average voter rarely reads such reports. The government should have found ways to explain the logic and progress of reform to a much broader constituency.

It also did not help that the Poroshenko Bloc has many representatives with seedy backgrounds and questionable pro-reform credentials. It includes some members of the “old regime,” and it made some questionable alliances in a number of regions. Such factors hurt its chances; after all, voters have been holding it to the high standards of the Euromaidan.

Major opposition forces capitalized on the shortcomings of the party of power. This includes the splinter parties of Victor Yanukovych’s Party of Regions: the Opposition Bloc, Renaissance, and Our Land. The tactics of these groups were simple. They criticized those in power and made many promises. They deliberately avoided mentioning any issues dealing with national security, geopolitics, or foreign policy. They made no mention of Russia, the Eurasian Union, or the West. Even the issue of Russian language use in Ukraine was muted. All these points were frequently addressed by the Party of Regions in the past. Perhaps this is a manifestation of how much has the country has changed due to Russia’s aggression, although this remains to be seen.

These parties fared quite well in a number of localities throughout the east and the south. It should be noted that the deep-pocketed and well-connected network that existed within the Party of Regions has survived the dramatic events of the last two years. They have a high degree of visibility in their regions, an abundance of financial resources, and solid media support. Still, the aggregate result of these political forces stopped short of what the Party of Regions once had.

One question mark for the Party of Regions successors is whether they will be able to work together and coordinate their activities. The Party of Regions always had many fractions and ambitious personalities, but Yanukovych kept it relatively unified. Now that he is gone, they have no one to consolidate around, and it is unclear how they will share their electorate moving forward.

There is also a question of whether they will seek to forge a compromise with the party of power in Kyiv. If so, a new, broad coalition could form, once again changing the political landscape of the country.

Local elections were also telling for a number of other political actors. The results for Yulia Tymoshenko’s Batkyvschina party indicate that she is not among the country’s primary powerbrokers. But she has managed to hang in there, with a diehard voter base and her charismatic persona.

The Radical Party of Oleh Lyashko did not do so well either. His populism and demagoguery no longer stand out in a crowded playing field where plenty of actors push a populist line. Besides, some of the voters who have voted for him and his party in the past seem to have figured out that they are just for show.

Much (mainly outside) attention was once again given to the performance of nationalist parties. Many eyes were on Oleh Tyahnybok’s Svoboda party, which did not do well in either of last year’s elections. Some anticipated that the party would now fade away, but that did not happen. Svoboda did reasonably well not only in some western regions but also in Kyiv. Apparently, there is a niche for nationalist-minded political forces in Ukraine. We can only hope this sentiment becomes modern, moderate, and responsible, free of homophobia, racism, and other despicable undertones.

Finally, elections in Odessa and the surrounding region attracted considerable attention. The incumbent mayor, Gennadiy Trukhanov, demonstrated his staying power, winning the vote over the former mayor, Eduard Gurvitz, and, significantly, Governor Mikheil Saakashvili’s protégé, Sasha Borovyk. Trukhanov was a constant presence in the local media (including some channels he allegedly owns). He managed not to make any major mistakes and forged “deals” with other influential players. Borovyk stepped into the race quite late and may not have had enough time to develop momentum, failing to win over even all pro-reform voters. For whatever reason, the Poroshenko Bloc also did not provide Borovyk proper support even though he ran his campaign under its banner. There were cases of voting irregularities and rumors of fraud, but none of the resulting legal challenges have been successful.

In conclusion, the relatively low voter turnout, underwhelming results for the party of power, and opposition party successes reflect a degree of societal dissatisfaction and impatience with the pace of reforms.

The local election outcomes have not moved Ukraine forward to having a more stable, functioning, multi-party political system. Most parties are still situational political projects fronted by prominent individuals and funded by oligarchs rather than political entities that issue forth a steady set of principles and positions.

However, prospects for reform, the fight against corruption, and efforts to fix the economy are not at all hopeless. The country is in a major overhaul and its population does not want to go back to the old stagnant ways. Civil society remains vibrant and will continue to exercise influence over the future of Ukraine.


For further reading:

Oleksandr Fisun, "The Future of Ukraine’s Neopatrimonial Democracy," PONARS Eurasia Policy Memo No. 394, October 2015.